fast fashion is toxic. literally.

Just over a week ago, River Island had a Jaclyn Hill moment when they realised that multiple styles on their shop shelves had the potential to poison anyone who handles or wears them. The garments have been available to buy since July and October of last year.


Whilst each piece might not have been questionably furry, but their materials were potentially filled with dangerous levels of cadmium ( this is found in rechargeable batteries and cigarette smoke ) and lead ( found in car batteries and ammunition ) .

Unsurprisingly, there was outrage. But I believe this outrage should have started long before.

Since I began building a sustainable and ethical wardrobe, I’ve learned a lot about why buying fast fashion pieces doesn’t just hurt the people who made it, but can put the consumer in danger, too.

This River Island scandal is the first time I’ve seen a headline like this about a store that I’ve bought from in the past. But this isn’t because it’s the first time someone’s been harmed for the sake of style, and high street shoppers aren’t the only ones in danger of fast fashion’s effects.

the relationship between fast fashion + toxic chemicals


Before I joined the #FashionRevolution, I’d heard plenty of times that fast fashion and toxic chemicals are not an unlikely pairing. I was very aware that, in order to produce the clothes I was buying every week, there was a whole lot of nasty materials involved.

Yet somehow I always managed to push it to the back of my mind because, y’know, fashion - it was too tempting and too easy to continue staying on trend by throwing a fiver here and there to put together an outfit to feature in my next Instagram post.


What I didn’t realise was that I was actually wearing the toxic chemicals that I’d believed to be out of sight, out of mind and of no concern to me. It sounds so selfish writing it out like this, and it’s a difficult thing to get over when you realise you’ve been funding it for years, but I’m so aware that this is very much the classic Western shopper’s mindset and it’s important to be blunt about it sometimes. And we need to be honest about it in order to move on from it.


I’m going to be honest with you here.

The person who bleached your Zara jeans is exposed to hazardous chemicals for 12 hours a day without a face mask for protection. This was proven in a 2016 Panorama investigation of the factories producing our clothes. The reason they’re exposed to toxic chemicals? They’re a key ingredient in the jeans themselves. Not only are the store’s executives exposing employees and consumers to danger to make a quick buck, but they’re releasing poison into water around the world.

the relationship between fast fashion brands + their factories


When I say that these companies are exposing ‘employees’ to hazardous chemicals, I don’t mean Karen in HR who works in Central London; I mean the makers whose bare hands assemble the clothes on our backs. Of course, many companies would not refer to garment workers as their employees because, frankly, that implies that they’re inclined to care about them. So instead they employ the factory owner and turn a blind eye as to what goes on past that point. This way when, for example, child labour is found ( see: How Zara Created Fast Fashion ) , they can say they didn’t realise and that it isn’t their responsibility.


Spoiler: it is.

The Clean Clothes Campaign stated:


It is Zara's responsibility to know who is making their clothes ... According to the code of conduct that they have signed up to, they are responsible for everyone involved in the supply chain. It is up to them to do the monitoring.

Oh, and if they are kind enough to count their garments’ makers as employees, they still don’t give a sh*t about them.


For example, in 2017, many H&M employees in Greece began protesting one of the new labour terms on their job contract that H&M was forcing them to sign. One of the clauses gave H&M the ability to relocate any worker, anywhere across the country, which the worker would pay for. This was a twisted ploy to make the employees quit, so that H&M would not have to pay a cent of compensation.


And these are not the only fast fashion brands treating workers this way.


So how does this link to toxic chemicals in clothing?


Well, it’s the perfect explanation as to how these corporations have been exposing these makers to poisonous fumes and substances for decades without hesitation.

pollution in river island


So what exactly went down and how did these items make their way to shop shelves without someone picking up on their dangers?

In response to the recall, River Island stated:

It has come to our attention that five womenswear garments contained traces of certain chemicals in excess of legally permitted levels within the EU. The excess quantities of these chemicals could only potentially cause harm if mouthed or ingested but safety comes first so we have recalled the products.


Traces don’t just appear. There must have been ‘certain chemicals’ involved in making these garments. This is not only just a bit gross as a consumer, but horrifyingly dangerous for the people who made the garments.

In 2018, the United Nations deemed the level of exposure to poisonous chemicals of workers in the textile industry to be ‘a global health crisis’. In their report, they stated:


The international transfer of dangerous and dirty work, whether extraction of natural resources, use of toxic chemicals and pesticides or disposal of hazardous wastes without appropriate measures to protect workers against exposures to toxic substances, has left workers and their communities at considerable risk of grave impacts on their human rights.

The lack of transparency throughout supply chains adds fuel to the problem and obstructs efforts by various stakeholders to improve occupational health.

Some of the incredible women working at fast fashion factories shared their stories and experiences in the International Labor Rights Forum’s 2015 report, ‘Our Voices, Our Safety: Bangladeshi Garment Workers Speak Out’. I urge you to read even just a couple of pages to find out the ordeal that they’re facing; the ordeal that we’re funding.


If you’re a big fan of River Island’s clothing, firstly: I hope you’re not any more, dang it! Also, please make sure that none of the pieces you’ve bought from them are toxic - read which products were recalled here.

what we can do as consumers


Unless the fast fashion industry cleans up the mess it’s making ( both literally and metaphorically ) , the situation is only going to get worse.

Let’s give them a kick up the arse to sort themselves out.

It’s time to fix fast fashion.


Join the #FashionRevolution now by heading over to